Today, Nazareth, the largest Palestinian city in Israel with 85,000 inhabitants, has a two-thirds Muslim majority. Although Israel has tightly limited the city's room for expansion, Nazareth serves a surrounding population of a quarter million and is viewed as the unofficial capital of the Palestinian minority.
Sectarian conflict in Nazareth first came to public attention in the late 1990s, when Netanyahu was also prime minister. He was widely blamed at the time for inflaming tensions in the city. On that occasion, the government intervened in a dispute over an empty lot next to the Basilica of the Annunciation, the enormous church marking the spot where many Christians believe an angel told Mary she was carrying the son of God.
As the city prepared for a visit by Pope John Paul II to celebrate the millennium, a group of Muslims claimed the site was land belonging to an Islamic trust before 1948 and should be used to build a large mosque. In an unprecedented decision, two ministerial committees set up by Netanyahu agreed to the mosque project. Tempers flared, and by Easter 1999 street fights between Christians and Muslims made headlines around the world.
In the end, the government stopped the mosque from being built and instead developed it as a public square. Nonetheless, the site is still a source of simmering tension, with several hundred Muslims using it for midday prayers every Friday.
Many Nazareth residents have grown increasingly fearful that the city may be heading back to the dark days of the late 1990s. "Netanyahu has form on this issue," said Mohammed Zeidan, the head of the Human Rights Association in Nazareth. "His fear is that we as a community, especially the youth, are becoming more organised and united, as well as more effective at exposing the discriminatory policies of the state."
Zeidan highlighted the recent success of mass protests that forced Netanyahu to shelve a government scheme, the Prawer Plan, to expel tens of thousands of Bedouin from their homes in the Negev. "He sees the community as a problem and the best way to deal with us is to set us at each other's throats."
The issue of Christian enlistment first surfaced a year ago, when the defence ministry quietly staged a conference on the issue in the neighboring Jewish city of Upper Nazareth. Christian Scout movements were invited -- and to the consternation of many Christians, three local priests also attended.
Currently among the Palestinian minority, only young men from the small Druze community are conscripted, after its leaders signed an agreement with the state in the 1950s. A few hundred more Palestinian citizens, both Muslims and Christians, volunteer for military service. However, the overwhelming majority are Bedouin, needed by the army as trackers.
Officials have recently talked up claims that the enlistment drive has led to a spurt of Christian recruits. However, a defence ministry official told the Associated Press last month that Christian volunteers had risen only marginally, from 40 a year to between 50 and 55.
"Israel takes care of us"
Leading Christian support in the city for the government's initiative is Bishara Shlayan, a 58-year-old former merchant seaman and the brother of the defence ministry's officer in charge of Christian recruitment. He has set up a Christian-Jewish political movement, called the Covenant of Flags, with a logo featuring an intertwined Cross and Star of David. Jeraisy, Nazareth's longtime Christian mayor, has called Shlayan a "collaborator."
But, according to Swaid and Zeidan, Netanyahu has been emboldened by his success in securing the support of a prominent Greek Orthodox priest in Nazareth. Gabriel Nadaf, aged 40 and a former spokesman for the Jerusalem Patriarch, recently stated : "Israel takes care of us, and if not Israel, who will defend us? We love this country, and we see the army as a first step in becoming more integrated with the state."
However, Azmi Hakim, leader of the Greek Orthodox community council in Nazareth, said there was almost no support for Nadaf or Shlayan. "They are a tiny minority but they are able to make a big noise because the government is giving them a lot of support and trying to create the impression that they represent a trend." He added that the danger was that this could be the trigger for deteriorating relations between the two religious communities.
Levin, who has proposed a new "Christian" nationality on ID cards, said he was responding to pressure from Christians. "This is the only place in the Middle East where they have security and freedom of worship," he said. "Many Christians don't want to be known as Arabs."
Following their agreement to conscription, the Druze were assigned a separate nationality, as well as an education system designed to inculcate "Zionist values."
Shlayan welcomed Levin's proposal, saying: "We are not brothers with the Muslims; brothers take care of each other."
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